“Zombie in a Penguin Suit” made me tear up. I admit it fully and without hesitance because this short film was compelling, well-executed, and featured a side of the undead we don’t normally consider. When you pair the brilliant shots with the phenomenal music selection, this is a zombie short you shouldn’t miss.
Director Chris Russell took some time to answer a few questions I had about the film. Before reading, I suggest viewing the film first. View the film on Youtube here.
Q: Why a zombie in a penguin suit? Did you have some kind of positive disposition towards them before you began filming?
A: It was an immediate decision, made with very little thought. The idea of a person being ambushed by zombies and ultimately turned into one, all while wearing a ridiculous or embarrassing outfit, the absurdity of it, struck me as very funny, but also very sad. Imagine having to go through eternity, not only wearing a ridiculous get-up, but also being completely unaware of it. A penguin suit was the first option I thought of, and it felt like a perfect fit, sort of speak.
Only after the decision was made did some of the more concrete reasoning come through: the similar way zombies and penguins walk, the adorableness of penguins and the vileness of zombies, the flightless bird and the living dead.
Q: How long did it take to film?
A: We shot over a ten-month period, but in total only shot for about 7-8 days. This was done for two reasons: 1) Everyone working on the project had real jobs and limited availability, and 2) I needed to be able to shoot seasonal changes, so we could watch the earth regrow as our lovable protagonist continued to decompose.
Q: How long to edit?
A: Jim Meegan and I spent some time between shoots cutting together what we had, but didn’t really commit to anything until after we finished shooting. The last scenes to be shot were the beginning stuff, the aquarium and the city riot scenes, and those were shot on the first weekend of October. We spent the next two weeks cutting it together, and had it out October 14th.
Jonathan Slyker spent the month of September creating most of the visual effects, and also rushed to get the city stuff done for release.
Q: How did you get so many extras?
A: Craigslist, friends, and friends of friends. The same few people are used many times over for certain scenes. I get killed several times.
For the church scene, the dead bodies are family friends. My parents are the last pair of dead bodies in that scene, and it is my dad’s hand hanging over the spilled cup. We had a barbecue afterward.
The field of crosses scene is populated by members of Contrapose Dance, a dance company in Boston.
For the city scenes, we knew we needed a lot of people. We also knew that, since we weren’t paying, there was a good chance nobody would show up. If it had been slightly chilly that day, or there was a Top Chef marathon on, it would be enough for people to stay in. So we put ads out incessantly, until we had about 240 people signed up and committed. At that point, we were hoping people wouldn’t show up, because we wouldn’t know what to do with them! Thankfully, out of the 240, about 100 or so people ended up showing, which was a perfect number to fill a city block.
It should also be mentioned that it wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the efforts of Nikki Rothenberg, our casting director. She did an incredible job organizing the whole thing and getting people out, and if anyone reading is looking for someone to help you get things done, she’s the person to call.
Q: Where did the filming take place?
A: Mostly in the Boston area (New England Aquarium, Mt Auburn Cemetery, the long defunct Wonderland Dog Track). The church scenes, among a few others, were shot in Connecticut, and the city riot scenes were shot in Brooklyn.
Q: Nice special effects (explosions, zombies coming out of ground, etc.). How long did all the postproduction stuff take?
A: Post-production should have been given a lot more time than it was, but I had self-imposed deadlines for release. I wanted it out before the second season of The Walking Dead began, and absolutely out before Halloween, when people are in the mood for sad, violent movies. Jonathan Slyker worked tirelessly to get everything done, starting in mid-September all the up to just days before release.
Q: What made you want to “personalize” a zombie? Normally we don’t consider their past or their journey as undead, which is one of the reasons I found it so compelling.
A: Every time I watch a zombie movie, I never believe zombies would be that frightening to humans. In large groups, they are overwhelming, but on an individual basis, a zombie is more pathetic than anything else. It’s like that old Cosby routine about mummies: they’re just too slow and mindless, they are completely outmatched by humans.
On top of that, being a zombie seems to be the much more frightening experience: thoughtless, driven by unquenchable urges, disregarding bodily limitations in pursuit of nothing in particular. Connecting that with a real human past, a human life that is cut short, makes it all the more desperate. Everyone has regrets, embarrassing aspects of their lives that they are working to change, and everyone wants to transcend those things, so they can live, and ultimately die, with grace. A zombie represents the interruption of those hopes. Our main character didn’t want to wear that silly outfit and hand out flyers for the rest of his life, but when he was turned, he was sentenced to carry that embarrassment on his back for as long as he was ‘alive’. It’s like taking one moment out of your entire existence and smearing it across eternity. I found that interesting, and terrifying.
Q: The music choice was spot on. Absolutely phenomenal. Was the song in the first part composed specifically for this short film?
A: No, it wasn’t. It’s a piece by composer Marc Mellits called ‘Mara’s Lullaby’. In fact, I had the song as an untitled track on my iPod, and happened to hear it randomly while driving (the joys of ‘Shuffle’). I had the idea first, but when I heard the song, it helped to cement the concept completely.
Incidentally, though we had communicated many times via email, Marc and I only met in person just recently. He and his wife are great people, and I learned the piece was written for his daughter.
Q: What were your aesthetic inspirations for the film? Did any movies or shows influence your style?
A: I look up to a great many filmmakers and artists, too many to name, and they all influence me in one way or another, big or small.
For this project, I think one of the most direct influences for me, strangely, was Pixar. Pixar is able to do so much with so little. Though they disguise themselves with kid-oriented movies, they are making some of the best and purest cinema out there right now. The fact that mainstream audiences aren’t noticing is amazing. It’s an extremely underrated skill. The first ten minutes of UP, for example, is devastatingly good storytelling. Almost everyone I know cried before the first line of dialogue was even uttered. I wanted to see if I could move people like that, in a short amount of time, without having to say a word.
Thematically, I tend toward darker subject matter, but Pixar is the gold standard in cinematic storytelling at the moment.
Q: Can I just say the Kool-aid scene in the church and the crucifixions were extremely powerful. Did you consciously think about what sort of things would happen during the apocalypse, or did those scenes just pop into your head?
A: A little of both. I just tried to put myself in the situation, and though I don’t think I would do what either of those scenes depict, I do think it is in my (our) nature to go to such extremes if pushed. In the case of the church scene, that was a group of people who wanted to control their destinies, and not allow it to be determined for them by mindless monsters. The field of crosses is more about the need for empowerment and a feeling of security, and the breakdown of logic that comes with that. There is no logical reason to put those zombies up there, it’s simply an expression of dominance over a malevolent force.
Q: Care to share any funny/weird moments during the filming process?
A: Some of the best moments came after shooting, when we were all still in make-up, soaked head to toe in blood, and we were eating at Subway, or filling up at a gas station, or stopped at a red light. People would look over and see a car full of violently injured people, and for a split second, before they realized it was make-up, their faces would curl into expressions of pure terror. Then most would laugh. I saw dozens of people mouth ‘Oh shit!’ through their car windows. It was like the end of ‘The Graduate’ when everyone is mouthing swears. It was hilarious. Michael Wetherbee got stopped many times for pictures.
Q: If you had to pick, what was the more challenging moment during the creation of the film?
A: Putting it together. Coming up with ideas and filming them was the fun part, but because we only had a limited amount of time to tell the story, we had to cut a fair amount of stuff from the final edit. We definitely left some good stuff out.
Q: Do you have any current projects in the works?
A: I do, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise just yet.
Huge thanks to Chris for giving such great answers for this interview. For those who are interested (I know I always am), here are the technical details about the film, such as what camera was used, etc. For more on the film, visit their website here.